Uli Sigg: How I built the world’s biggest collection of Chinese contemporary art

Editor’s Note: A former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential collectors of Chinese contemporary art. The opinions expressed here are solely his.

CNN  — 

It was business, not art, that first brought me to China. As an employee of the Swiss company Schindler Elevators I arrived in Beijing in the late 70s, to establish what would later become the very first joint venture between China and the outside world.

This was the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy, though the country itself was still very much socialist. The death of Mao had occurred only recently and there was a feeling of turbulence and disorientation. Changes were happening everywhere, people – and artists in particular – wanted to have their voices heard.

Early days of Chinese Contemporary Art

I had always been very interested in contemporary art – and it seemed very natural for me at the time to begin exploring the art scene in China. Unfortunately, what I saw back then did not excite me.

Chinese artists had only just begun to free themselves from the forced constraints of socialist realism.

Sigg has collected four decades of Chinese contemporary art.

They had been cut off entirely from the global mainstream and the major art movements of the 20th century. I was looking at the scene with a Western eye, accustomed to the cutting most edge of contemporary art. The Chinese, meanwhile, were playing catch-up.

Throughout much of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinese art appeared – on the surface at least – as quite derivative, a mere imitation of more obvious Western styles. I followed the scene, treading carefully, so as not to put my company or the artists themselves at risk, but did not begin seriously collecting until much later, once Chinese artists had found their own language.

Over the years that language evolved and changed. In the late 80s – and particularly after Tiananmen – contemporary art took on an increasingly political edge. Artists made art against the system, against a repressive system and political art dominated. This was followed by a more Cynical Realism – or pop art.

Today, Chinese art production has caught up with global trends. Most artists are able to travel and the scene no longer stands in isolation. Its influences are global. Having watched Chinese art develop closely, I realized that not a single institution, or any known individuals, had begun seriously collecting. Those that did buy pieces did so randomly.

A systematic approach

So I decided to do what a national institution ought to do but never did: To collect Chinese contemporary art in a systematic way, from the late 1970s onwards, mirroring Chinese art production in its width and depth from its very beginnings.

At its height, my collection consisted of around 2,300 works – ranging from important revolutionary paintings to modern day abstracts.

I must have met close to 2,000 artists over the years. I nearly always purchased directly from the artists themselves, due – at least initially – out of sheer necessity: there was no functioning galleries or dealers as there are today.

In 1997, art catalogs did not exist and exhibitions were still largely underground events, so in order to get a better overview of the country’s art scene, I created the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), the first ever award of its type to be held in China.